Oh Canada, you’re so vanilla


It was 1967 when Pierre Elliott Trudeau, then federal Minister of Justice, famously declared, “There’s no place for the state in the bedrooms of the nation,” and most Canadians today would agree that the government has no business involving itself in our sex lives. It might be that we also believe we have little business involving ourselves in the sex lives of our representatives in government, leaving our nation lagging miserably behind others when it comes to political sex scandals.

Take Israel, a country that punches far above its weight when it comes to political sex scandals. In 1993, when future Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was extorted with a videotape showing him cheating on his wife, he stared down his blackmailers (who threatened to release the tape if he didn’t step out of politics) and took to the airwaves to admit to the extramarital affair. Both his marriage and political career survived. On a more sordid note, Israel’s Moshe Katsav, president from 2000 until 2007, was forced to step down after numerous female employees accused him of sexual harassment and one accused him of rape. Despite Katsav’s proclamations of innocence and accusations that his political opponents were setting him up, the evidence mounted and police laid charges. As part of a plea bargain that would spare him jail time, Katsav resigned the presidency but later did an about-face, vowing to prove his innocence in court. It was a bad gamble, to say the least. In December 2010, the former President was convicted of two counts of rape, obstruction of justice and a grab bag full of other charges for which he was sentenced the following year to seven years in prison. Katsav’s appeal to the Supreme Court of Israel failed and he began serving his sentence in December 2011.

Standing in the shadows of Israel when it comes to political scandals, Canada also can’t hold a candle to Italy since we’ve never had a politician that comes anywhere close to Silvio Berlusconi. After years of ignoring Berlusconi’s very public extramarital dalliances, not to mention various criminal convictions, his wife—who had previously been his mistress when he was married to someone else—filed for divorce in 2010 citing Bersculoni’s propensity to sleep with minors. In February 2011, Prime Minister Berlusconi was charged with paying for sex with a 17-year old exotic dancer (prostitution isn’t illegal in Italy but there’s an 18 year age limit for those providing sexual services) and with abuse of power for trying to persuade the police to release the woman when she was arrested for theft. The trial, which media outlets around the globe covered extensively, heard evidence of Berlusconi’s wild “bunga bunga” parties at which women would strip and perform sexual acts for the entertainment of the Prime Minister’s guests. Berlusconi was convicted and sentenced to seven years in prison, but an appeals court overturned the verdict in July of this year.

And, as with so much else, our humble nation pales in comparison to our neighbours to the south when it comes to political sex scandals. From Newt Gingrich being outed as a hypocritical adulterer to Anthony Weiner sending cock shots off to the twitterverse, American politicians seem to get caught more often and suffer more extreme consequences than any one.

Colorado Senator Gary Hart was the overwhelming favourite to secure the Democratic nomination for the 1988 United States presidential election. In response to unending rumours that he was having an extramarital affair, Hart brazenly challenged the media to follow him around so that he could clear his name. It was only a matter of days before reporters saw a young woman who was not his wife sneaking out of his house early one morning. A few days after that, the National Enquirer published photographs of Donna Rice sitting on Hart’s lap on a yacht named, appropriately, Monkey Business. A few days after that, Hart abandoned his White House bid.

Ten years later it was President Bill Clinton in the headlines when news broke that he was involved in an affair with 22-year-old White House intern Monica Lewinsky. After Clinton famously declared, “I did not have sexual relations with that woman,” a great deal of evidence surfaced, including a blue dress stained with presidential semen and lurid tales involving a cigar not being used as smoking material in the Oval Office, indicating he most certainly did. Clinton finally confessed, leading to the second presidential impeachment trial in American history.

The closest we’ve come to seeing that kind of action at 24 Sussex Drive was back in the ’70s when 52-year-old Prime Minister Trudeau married Margaret, a 22-year-old self-described hippie. The age difference of the newlyweds raised a few eyebrows but was hardly considered a sex scandal. That came later, when Mrs Trudeau spent their sixth wedding anniversary partying with the Rolling Stones at the El Mocambo in Toronto and was later photographed dancing sans underwear at New York’s Studio 54 disco.

Trudeau denied having an affair with any of the Stones, writing in the first of her three memoirs that she merely invited the band to her hotel room “to drink, play dice, smoke a little hash.” She has subsequently attributed her behaviour at the time to bipolar disorder.

The Canadian media might have let Trudeau spiral out of control in private but the international media that the Rolling Stones factor attracted made that impossible. Before his marriage, Trudeau had dated high-profile women such as Barbara Streisand. Following the couple’s separation, he continued the practice, dating actresses like Margot Kidder (Lois Lane to Christopher Reed’s Superman in the late ’70s/early ’80s movie franchise) and Kim Cattrall (later of Sex and the City fame). Beyond the odd photo in the lifestyle pages when the prime minister had someone famous on his arm, however, the media by and large left the Trudeaus and their personal lives alone. And that, according to one expert, is exactly how Canadians want it.

Shannon Sampert is on sabbatical from her position at the University of Winnipeg where she is an associate professor in the department of political science. After years of teaching and conducting research on the symbiosis of Canadian politics and the media, she was recently appointed politics and perspectives editor for the Winnipeg Free Press. I asked her why Canadian politicians are less often embroiled in sexual controversy than their American counterparts and how it is when they are, that they are much more likely to recover from it.

“Mostly what it is,” she explains, “is the push of the religious right in the US to use neo-conservative values to push the political agenda.” With the religious right until recently carrying far less political clout in our country, Sampert says Canadian reporters have tended to look away from the sexual affairs of our politicians until they have no other real choice but to report it, as was the case with Margaret Trudeau. She points to the Francis Fox abortion scandal as an example.

Fox was Solicitor General in Trudeau’s first government and in 1978, at 38 years of age, the youngest minister in the federal cabinet made headlines across the country for all the wrong reasons when he stood up in the House of Commons and admitted to something that had been Ottawa’s worst-kept secret for years.

“I would like to inform the House that I resigned from the cabinet on Friday,” he told his fellow parliamentarians. “A few years ago, before I entered the cabinet, I was involved in a brief liaison with a married woman who became pregnant. She subsequently applied and secured the required permission for a therapeutic abortion. Under admission at the hospital, I signed the name of her husband to an admitting document. This fact has become known in the last few days. I discussed it with the Prime Minister and tended my resignation, which he has accepted. Mr Speaker, these are the facts which the House should know; I take full responsibility for them.”

Now, Millennials and Gen-Yers who find themselves shocked that married women had to have their husband’s permission to have an abortion are probably even more shocked at the concept of ministerial accountability. Indeed, women’s reproductive rights and accountability of elected representatives in this country have come a long way, baby. One forward. One back.

At any rate, Fox’s political career survived. After he resigned as solicitor general, he went on to re-election and was reappointed to cabinet two years later where he remained until the Liberals were defeated in 1984. Paul Martin appointed Fox to the Senate in 2005, a post from which he stepped down in 2011, three years before reaching the mandatory requirement age, citing family reasons.

Sampert says the Fox affair was a perfect example of the media looking the other way. He was an MP when the affair and the abortion happened and nobody said a word despite all the whispers that surrounded his 1976 divorce. The media reported on it only after Fox himself made it a public issue in his statement in the House of Commons. Former Prime Minister John Diefenbaker told The Globe and Mail, “I will never know why he did it.” He wasn’t lamenting the affair or the abortion, but rather to the confession, noting it would remain in Hansard forever, something “time could not efface.”

If Fox hadn’t fessed up, Sampert doubts whether the Ottawa press gallery would have pursued the issue. “Canadians have made it really clear they aren’t that interested in salacious details,” Sampert says.

And while Toronto mayor Rob Ford has done his best to blow that theory right of the water, Albertans who have Ontario-envy can boast that ours was the first and remains the only province to see a sitting premier forced from office over a sex scandal. In 1934, John Edward Brownlee, the province’s fifth premier, was forced to resign following what the media of the day referred to as “The Brownlee Scandal.”

The previous year, a young woman named Vivian MacMillan—who was employed as a stenographer with the provincial government and the daughter of one of Brownlee’s political allies—and her father sued the Premier under the province’s Seduction Act, a story that made the front pages of newspapers across Canada and abroad. MacMillan alleged that the married Premier seduced her when she was just 18-years-old and that the sexual relationship continued for three years.

“Unless I would give in to him he told me he could not go on as Premier of the Province,” the young woman told the court, as reported in The Globe at the time. “I couldn’t stop going out with him; his influence was too strong.” The public ate up every salacious morsel.

Like Israel’s Katsav and many men in similar circumstances, Brownlee proclaimed his innocence, painting himself as the victim of a political set-up. The Edmonton jury didn’t see it that way, found Brownlee guilty, and awarded the MacMillans $15 000 in damages. Brownlee resigned a few days after the verdict, which he appealed unsuccessfully all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada. Today, a building stands in Brownlee’s honour at 97 Street and 103 Avenue, not far from the site of the province’s next big political sex scandal, the Harle affair.

In November 1983, Graham Harle, the MLA for Stettler and Alberta’s Solicitor General, was found by police outside what media reports at the time described as “a seedy Edmonton motel.” Asked to explain what he was doing with a prostitute in his government-issued car in the middle of the night, the 51-year-old Harle claimed that he was conducting a secret investigation, about which he had previously told no one, into the province’s prostitution industry. He was happy to report to the (presumably laughing) press corps that the sex trade didn’t “appear to be a problem right at the moment.”

Nobody bought a word of Harle’s explanation, including Premier Lougheed who readily accepted Herle’s resignation when the story unfolded. Harle was sent to the backbenches and did not seek re-election after the legislature was dissolved in 1986.

Alberta’s latest political sex scandal involved Fort McMurray MLA Mike Allen who was busted for solicitation in a police prostitution sting while travelling in the US on government business. Allen, who pleaded guilty to reduced charges earlier this year and was quietly welcomed back to caucus in July, had indicated he will stand for re-election in the next general election. It will be interesting to see what his constituents have to say about that.

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